By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Jan. 23, 2014) -- The Army's surgeon general, Lt. Gen. Patricia D. Horoho, said she tried not to consider the role her gender played on her professional development as she climbed higher through the ranks in the Army.
But at some point, she said, it would become inevitable that somebody would point it out to her. Just in 2011, in fact, as she had been named the first female, first non-physician to be appointed as the Army surgeon general, she was approached several times about the uniqueness of her position.
"The U.K. called, when I was in Afghanistan, and said congratulations -- 'how does it feel to know the entire world is watching to see if you succeed or fail?'" Horoho said. "I have to tell you, I was holding the phone and I thought, 'I'm not sure if I should be happy with the call or if I just got insulted.'"
Both Horoho and Lt. Gen. Flora D. Darpino, the Army's judge advocate general, or JAG, spoke Jan. 22, before the Women Mayors' Caucus in Washington, D.C. The caucus is part of the larger United States Conference of Mayors, for mayors of cities with 30,000 or more citizens. The group held its 82nd Winter Meeting, Jan 22-24, in the nation's capital.
Horoho said more recently she was approached by the Israeli surgeon general.
"He said 'you need to know when you got selected, it was the shot that was heard around the world. Because if the United States places a female in their highest position within Army medicine, then it caused other nations to look and say why aren't we doing that? Why aren't we following suit?'"
Later, she said, two positions in the Israeli military opened up for women to command. And now there are discussions about should they be general officers.
"That's a huge change," she said.
She said that France has also approached the Army, following her appointment to surgeon general, to ask for help with leader development of nurses.
"They are going to move their nurses from being enlisted to officers, and they have taken a general officer slot and held it for that," she said. "They did that because they said watching the [U.S.] Army make that decision, they couldn't defend why they weren't doing that."
"What I learned from that, is you serve as a role model whether you realize you are doing that or not," Horoho said. "And there are people watching what you are doing, and the impact that you have can be huge."
On a more personal level, she told the women mayors in the room, fathers have approached her and told her that by having achieved her position as the Army's first female surgeon general, she has served as proof for their own daughters that anything is possible.
She told the mayors "there are young women, and there are fathers that are looking and saying if you all can serve as the mayor, my daughter can do that one day. Those are some of the lessons learned."
Darpino, the Army's first female judge advocate general, also spoke with the women mayors.
She explained her roles as JAG within the Army, including the senior military legal advisor to the secretary of the Army, the primary and principle attorney and counselor to the chief of staff of the Army, and the head of the JAG corps. She oversees attorneys, paralegals and professionals in the legal profession within the Army, worldwide.
"We have to be highly flexible, very adaptable, willing to change, and willing to learn," Darpino said.
As a second-generation Italian American, she said her father had told her they would need to work harder to get ahead.
"He basically inculcated us with the thought that in order for us to ever be considered equal, we always had to work harder and be better," she said. "As women, that hits home a little bit more. That's a lot of times how we feel. This idea of joining the military -- I was slightly na´ve I must admit -- didn't seem that intimidating to me. And then I showed up at my first course."
There, she said, of 150 people, there were about seven women.
"I thought, 'I have picked not only a male-dominated profession, the law, I have picked a male-dominated organization, the Army,'" she said. "I'm really glad I didn't know what I was doing when I started."
Darpino relayed only one example of somebody in the Army who considered her gender before her professional capabilities -- an officer at her first assignment.
After that, she said, she found that in the Army she was valued for her input and achievements, and not discriminated against for her gender.
"What I ran into were a bunch of people who judged me by how well I did," she said. "And as long as I did my very best, and gave my very best in this team sport, the Army, I continued to be promoted and given positions of greater responsibility."
Both officers spoke about their upbringing in the Army as women, but also spoke about the challenges they face in their current position.
One female mayor posed a question about the challenges of sexual assault in the Army. Darpino said sexual assault is not just an Army problem, but it is a problem where the Army has a unique ability to make a difference.
"Sexual assault is a societal problem, it is the most under-reported crime there is out there," she said. "But I feel the Army is better equipped to address this issue than a lot of the rest of society. Sexual assault is under-reported for a lot of reasons. Our studies have shown that the reason sexual assault is under-reported, is that the victim doesn't want people to know. It is a personal matter."
She said that retaliation for having reported a sexual assault -- retaliation by their peers, not their leadership -- is also a problem that keeps sexual assault in the Army an under-reported crime.
This is where, she said, the Army can make some headway. The military, she said, is a team. And youth can -- in the early stages of their career, in Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, in Reserve Officer Training Corps, or in the Delayed Entry Program -- be taught that being on the team means not allowing your teammates to be assaulted.
"We bring 54,000 people into the Army a year," she said. "And they are young. The vast majority of our victims are between the ages of 18-24. That would be about 75 percent of our victims. They are the ones who have just come in. Who are the people that are sexually assaulting them? About the exact same age group. So we have an opportunity to start, which we have been doing in our JROTC programs, in our college ROTC programs, in our Delayed Entry Programs ... working with them, in the culture change. That is, as a member of the team, if you see something, you have to stop it."
Regarding youth, Horoho told mayors it is a national "strategic vulnerability" that only 25 percent of youths aged 17-24 meet the health and fitness criteria to join the Army.
"We're not getting healthier as a nation," she said. Some 1/3 of Americans will have diabetes by the 2045-2050 timeframe, she said. And 70 percent of illnesses across the nation are preventable.
Within the Army, she said, the service has rolled out its "Performance Triad" effort, focused on eating right, sleeping right, and getting the right amount of physical activity to stay healthy -- and to stay ready for combat.
"We are focusing on brain health, to really improve the health of our service members and their families," she said.
She said she hopes the Army's efforts at a fitness revolution will persuade others to follow suit.
"We provide healthcare across five continents," she said. "If we can take the Army and show that by focusing on sleep, activity and nutrition, we can bend the cost curve of health care, that we can increase health outcomes. I think we could have a pilot that we could share with the nation to really look at how do we improve [the health of] young Americans."